Is "Ready Player One" a fantastical love letter to predominately 1980s pop culture, or is it a cautionary tale about losing oneself in virtual worlds at the expense of living a full, real life? As it turns out, it's a little of both, the tug and pull of the film's warring motives leaving the viewer unsure at times whether to fully submit to its non-stop references to past films, video games and fictional worlds. Likewise, does the picture seamlessly incorporate these nods into its narrative fabric, or does director Steven Spielberg (2016's "The BFG
") occasionally become so preoccupied with checking nostalgia-fueled boxes he forgets to create singular, for-the-ages moments worthy of standing alongside the best of his oeuvre? This part-spectacular, part-developmentally undernourished adaptation of Ernest Cline's acclaimed 2011 science-fiction novel leaves one wishing for more from Zak Penn (2008's "The Incredible Hulk
") and Cline's (2009's "Fanboys
") screenplaymore breathing room to build its actual and imagined landscapes, more time to effectively establish its charactersand yet much of what is here is still enough to bring an unabashed smile to the faces of fanboys and fangirls everywhere.
In the year 2045, Columbus, Ohio, has become the fastest-growing city on Earth, the bulk of its residents forced to live in a slum area filled with makeshift towers of mobile homes known as "The Stacks." On a planet beleaguered by overpopulation, corporate greed, corn syrup droughts and bandwidth riots, 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan)like so many of the planet's dwellersgravitates toward losing himself in the OASIS, a virtual world of limitless possibilities where he is known by his avatar Parzival. When revered OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) passed away five years ago, he left behind a challenge no one has yet to crack. Hidden within the game are three keys leading to an ultimate Easter egg, the first person to find them standing to inherit Halliday's fortune and full control over the OASIS. As Wade and fellow players and friends Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao) move closer to solving the game, their activity catches the deceitful eye of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). The CEO of technology conglomerate Innovative Online Industries (IOI), Nolan seeks to find the keys via his debt-indentured slaves/gamers known as "The Sixers," and he isn't about to let Wade sweep in and take away his shot at world domination.
With an unspoken but quite obvious nod to 1971's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "Ready Player One" is a morality fable about lasting legacies and the importance of goodness overcoming selfishness and greed. When the film is locked into Wade/Parzival's personal journey, it radiates a youthful, anything-can-happen glow. The narrative rhythm is more hectic than Steven Spielberg's best genre efforts, from 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third King" to 1982's "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" to 1993's "Jurassic Park" to 2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
," but when it's at its best it holds the same kind of magic. An opening-act car chase through a fantasyland version of Manhattan as everything from dinosaurs to King Kong aim to stop Wade and his competitors from reaching the finish line is mesmerizing to behold, as are the circumstances which lead to the procurement of the first key. Midway through, an unthinkable journey into the world of a classic horror film from the early '80s just about has to be seen to be believed. In those rare but precious moments when things slow down, the story earns its sentimental leanings, perhaps no more so than when Wade discovers a media archive of Halliday's life and loves, receiving a glimpse into one of this late genius' profound regrets which ultimately tore apart his friendship with partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).
When so much of the story takes place in a virtual reality of avatar characters, the live-action cast threatens to be an afterthoughtnot because the actors aren't strong, but because there isn't always a palpable enough connection between the CG creations and their real-world counterparts. This is especially true of Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki and Philip Zhau as Aech, Daito and Sho, the three of them appearing in the flesh too late and then given little to do but bounce around in a van as they're pursued through the city streets of Columbus. Given a bit more to work with are Tye Sheridan (2017's "Detour
") and Olivia Cooke (2015's "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
"), charismatic romantic leads as Wade/Parzival and Samantha/Art3mis. Wade and Samanthaand the dystopian society they are living inare interesting enough that the viewer yearns to learn more than the brief snippets of information provided about them. Mark Rylance (2015's "Bridge of Spies
") is a standout as the mysterious, visionary creator of OASIS James Halliday, bringing a lifetime of yearning, wisdom and heartache to each moment he appears onscreen. As the megalomaniacal Nolan Sorrento, Ben Mendelsohn (2016's "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
") is great at playing bad. The less said about T.J. Miller (2016's "Office Christmas Party
"), however, the better; his blessedly brief supporting turn as i-R0k, a wisecracking IOI bounty hunter, is gratingly unfunny.
"Ready Player One" is sensory overload with a heart, complemented by Alan Silvestri's (2015's "The Walk
") majestic, sample-heavy score and a primo '80s soundtrack featuring, among others, Tears for Fears, Van Halen, Blondie, Twisted Sister, Hall & Oates, and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Wade and Samantha are winning protagonists with whom the viewer wants to take this visually dazzling odyssey, while Halliday's ethereal, sagelike presence lingers over the proceedings. When the picture stays focused on this central trio, it's on capable, involving footing. When they briefly get lost in a climactic segment of CG hordes thrashing about and pummeling each other, the spell is broken as abruptly as a lightswitch being flipped off. Fortunately, things recover again in time for a sweet, even comforting, conclusion wherein arrogance and egotism are no match for integrity and virtue. The world in which Wade and Samantha are living has seen better days, but within these two characters' souls lies a hope for a better tomorrow. In the meantime, all they can do is live for today.
A monumentally ambitious undertaking where virtually every shot is abound with pop-cultural Easter eggs, "Ready Player One" may take years of frame-by-frame analysis to wholly unpack. Even in its sometimes messy kitchen-sink approach, the film holds a keen reverence for multimedia art and the lifelong impact it can make on those of an impressionable age. No one, of course, is better-suited for this subject matter than Steven Spielberg. For him, charm and spectacle walk hand in hand.